December 26, 2007

Discovering "Cymbeline"

The big question for me when I'm getting ready to see a play by Shakespeare is whether I should read the play, or at least a summary of it, beforehand. But I knew right from the moment I heard about Lincoln Center's production of Cymbeline that I wasn't going to read it. I'd never seen Cymbeline or studied it in school and the chance to "discover" a work by Shakespeare for the very first time, almost the way that a groundling at the Old Globe might have done in the Bard's day, seemed too good an opportunity to miss.

As you probably know by now, Cymbeline is kind of like a "Shakespeare's Greatest Hits" album. Characters and themes from other plays pop up so much that if you're familiar with just a little bit of Shakespeare, you feel quite at home. There are young lovers who are kept apart by wrongheaded parents (ala Romeo and Juliet), a scheming queen (just like Lady Macbeth), an unjustly jealous husband and the villain who eggs him on (hello, Othello and Iago), rousing battle scenes (all hail Henry V and Richard III), and spunky cross-dressing heroines and long-lost siblings (pick your favorite of his comedies). I've been trying to imagine what might have possessed Shakespeare to cram so many of his favorite tropes into one play. Was he cash-strapped and threw it all together fast to pay off a debt? Had he developed a case of writer's block and decided to treat it with remedies that had worked in the past? Who cares? What matters is that director Mark Lamos has whipped them all together into a delightfully entertaining evening full of pageantry, romance and liberal dollops of good-naturedly over-the-top humor.

Lots of directors these days seem to think that the best way to get a Broadway audience to sit through a Shakespeare play is simply to cast it with a big name star or two, or as many as they can get. Lamos didn't do that. Instead his large, color-blind cast (black Phylicia Rashad plays mom to white
Adam Dannheisser) is filled with accomplished stage actors and they return the favor by turning in nicely polished performances, particularly Martha Plimpton as the courageous heroine Imogen, Michael Cerveris as her secret-husband Posthumus and John Pankow as their loyal servant Pisanio. The always-dependable John Cullum makes a regal king and Dannheisser, as a totally hissable villain, provides comic relief and wins big laughs. Lamos doesn’t try to impose any overarching concept on the play either; he just lets it tell its story. And he's ably assisted by Michael Yeargan's simple but elegant set, which evokes the fairy tale that Cymbeline ultimately is, and Jess Goldstein's lavish costumes, which are a little more all over the map but fitting since the play is too.

I squeezed the show in during the pre-Christmas rush and its message of forgiveness and reconciliation fits right into the spirit of the season. Maybe too many other theatergoers had longer shopping lists than mine because there were lots of empty seats at the Vivian Beaumont, where the show is playing through Jan. 6. And that's too bad because although Cymbeline is too much of a grab-bag to be a great play, there’s enough in this production to make a theater-loving groundling like me grateful to have seen it. Plus, there's that extra treat of discovering a work by Shakespeare that hasn't been done to death.

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